Sascha Morrell: Working with zombies

Working with zombies, from Haiti to Wall Street

Sascha Morrell"Their eyes were dull and unseeing.… From the presence of these dried, dusty skeletons walking along, shoulders bowed, arms dangling, children fled in terror. 'Zombie!' they cried, remembering the tales ... of horrible men that were neither alive nor dead, but corpses dug up from graves and made to work."

Guy Endore, Babouk (1934)
This paper examines how the walking corpse and tropes of living death were used to represent the dehumanizing effects of repetitive, alienated labour in industrial, bureaucratic and plantation settings both prior to and after the passage of the Haitian zombie slave into U.S. culture via the publication of William Seabrook's The Magic Island in 1929. Examining nineteenth-century and still earlier western precedent for twentieth-century appropriations of the Haitian folkloric figure provides fresh insight into how the Afro-Caribbean zombie interfused with western traditions of living death. Existing accounts of the zombie's reception in Anglophone culture not only underestimate the extent to which the zombie was transformed upon entry by established traditions, but actually ascribe authenticity to aspects of zombie mythology that may be the product of a distorting western influence. For instance, the association of the Haitian zombie with organized labour seems to have been exaggerated in western representations of Haitian lore, including recent critical treatments. As well as shedding new light on the complex origins of the literary zombies of the early-twentieth century, my paper will briefly consider how the zombie's subsequent evolution in popular culture into a figure of mindless consumerism and predatory capitalism might assist critics in (re)assessing the usefulness of "modernism" and "postmodernism" as critical categories.

Sascha Morrell studied Arts and Law at the University of Sydney and completed her PhD in English Literature at Trinity College, Cambridge. She has taught at the University of Cambridge, the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales, and was Visiting Research Scholar at New York University in Fall 2015. Dr Morrell is the co-editor of Flann O'Brien and Modernism (Bloomsbury 2014) and has published widely on American and modernist literatures while completing a book project on race, labor, historiography and visual culture in the fiction of William Faulkner, Herman Melville and others. She has a special interest in the appropriation of Haitian history and cultural motifs (including the zombie) in U.S. fiction, theatre and film. She is currently developing a project investigating connections between different ideas of 'the south' (including Australasian and other transpacific spaces) in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century U.S. literature.

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